I have recently been reading The Jazz Standards by Ted Gioia. Gioia is a jazz musician, author and critic with numerous jazz titles to his name. The book briefly summarizes the historical and musical context for over 450 jazz standards and recommends a range of recordings of each tune. I replicate this approach in today’s playlist.

Danny Silverstone Archive

The concept of “standards” is deeply rooted within jazz culture and has many overlapping meanings. Jazz standards form a core pillar in jazz’s DNA and are a central part of what makes jazz performance unique. You cannot gain admittance as a jazz musician with pretensions to either competence or greatness unless you are deeply immersed in the jazz standards repertoire.

There are, broadly, two types of jazz standards.

Tunes from the Great American Song Book;

These are tunes written mainly, although not exclusively for Broadway shows during the heyday of the Tin Pan Alley era, from the 1920’s through to the 1960’s. While the specific origins of such standards may be largely forgotten they continue to exert a profound influence on jazz musicians, both historic and contemporary. Jazz musicians are drawn to the tunes’ harmonic structures and improvisational possibilities. For some jazz instrumentalists, Dexter Gordon and Lester Young come to mind, it is the tune’s lyrics which form a reference point for their solos. But it is fundamentally the harmonic and improvisational possibilities that continue to draw jazz musicians to show tunes that get very little airtime in any other context. Gioia points out how often jazz standards derive from shows or movies that are now completely forgotten, or quickly flopped. It is thanks to jazz musicians that they remain musically relevant so long after they originally appeared.

A professional jazz musician is expected to have mastered most of the show tunes referenced by Gioia in many keys, not just the original keys, this is particularly important in accompanying singers who are known for picking obscure keys that suit their vocal ranges & sensibilities. 

The main challenge of the “jam session” where a soloist will be invited up to sit in with an experienced band to play a jazz standard announced without prior notice and in real time is a core part of the jazz life and one that I have experienced and dreaded. Can I play the tune effectively? Can I offer a distinctive solo or fall back on a few pre-cooked licks?  If you can survive this baptism (many times) your jazz career has a chance of being launched. Jazz is littered with stories about young players whose respect and reputation was earned in afterhours jam sessions. Jazz standards are pivotal to the development of jazz going back to its early origins in the 20th century. The jam session, although less of a feature in the current era remains the forum where jazz credentials can be tested and noted. Where up and coming players establish their credentials, their jazz “chops”.

Modern jazz has given a contemporary and continuing life to beautifully constructed tunes by the Broadway masters-the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers or Hoagy Carmichael- that might otherwise have been largely forgotten. Great jazz musicians feel an obligation to offer their own distinctive interpretations of jazz standards, turning jazz standards into their standards.  Many jazz musicians have spent their entire careers mining the improvisational possibilities of a particular tune-Lee Konitz spent 60 years playing and recording All The Things You Are, always in search of new angles. It is a particular element of jazz alchemy that an Irving Berlin show tune from the 1920’s can be reinvented in a jam session in London, New York or Capetown in 2022.

Coleman Hawkins set the standard on Body and Soul in 1937 and generations of subsequent jazz musicians have at some time in their careers had to study Hawkins’ stunning improvisation as a step towards fashioning their own interpretations. The same could be said of Charlie Parker’s take on Star Eyes or Miles Davis’ very strong focus on show tunes in his quintets of the 1950’s and 60’s. Occasionally a musician will make a show tune their own. John Coltrane’s treatment of the otherwise saccharine and distinctly un-jazzy My Favourite Things comes to mind. While Coltrane’s original tunes remain standard texts for contemporary musicians, I can’t think of too many who have taken on My Favourite Things- it is generally accepted that Coltrane’s approach is too definitive to require any further re-interpretation. But this is exceptional- the great attraction of jazz standards to contemporary musicians is the potential they offer for re-interpretation and exploration.

During the big band era in the 30’s and 40’s bandleaders would vie with each other to produce competing arrangements of freshly minted standards. And in the same era vocalists would be equally competitive in laying claim to being the go-to interpreters of particular tunes. Billie Holliday’s association with both Strange Fruit and Good Morning Heartache are examples.

 It is impossible to consider the art of the piano trio going back to Teddy Wilson or Fats Waller and continuing up to Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau ,Kenny Barron or Emmet Cohen in the current era without recognizing the central importance of jazz standards within that specific repertoire. Keith Jarret’s standards trio ran for over 30 years. Bill Charlap, the New York pianist has devoted a similar amount of time to exploring the jazz standards repertoire.

Original Compositions that become Jazz Standards;

Of equal importance are original compositions by jazz musicians that are quickly adopted as jazz standards. While Sonny Rollins is a master interpreter of jazz standards his own early compositions quickly became standards themselves.  Check out Oleo recorded by and with Miles Davis when Rollins was barely out of his teens.

Original compositions that become jazz standards fall into two categories. 

Tunes that have become virtually mandatory challenges for jazz musicians to master and interpret. These will also form a core of the jam session repertoire. Numerous compositions by Charlie Parker, Monk, Miles, Horace Silver or the roster of musicians signed up to the Blue Note label during its heyday are all examples of original standards. The house pianist at a jam session is as likely call Ornithology or Blue Bossa as Broadway-based standards. The focus here will be on tunes with an immediately recognizable tune with interesting harmonies to explore (or subvert) in the improvisations that will follow. 

The best players will use a standard as the launch pad for telling their own story

A related category involves tunes which may be more challenging to play- Clifford Brown’s Joy Spring comes to mind- or reflect a particular stylistic vibe. Good examples being the impressive compositional output from both Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter during the 1960’s. Many vocalists, following the lead set by such exemplars of scat singing (wordless improvisation) as Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan saw the opportunity to improvise vocally over standard originals in the same way as instrumentalists. Following the breakout success of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross in the 1950’s, a trio of distinctive vocalists who added lyrics to modern standards, many vocalists added their own lyrics to modern standards. Mark Murphy did it throughout his career. Kurt Elling and Norma Winstone are doing it now. Listen to Annie Ross’s classic recording of Twisted where her lyrics are based note-for-note on Wardell Gray’s solo on his own composition on my playlist. This recalls my memory of hearing Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh at Ronnie Scott’s in the late 70’s playing Lester Leap’s In and then harmonizing together over numerous choruses on Lester Young’s own classic recorded solo on that tune. I cannot begin to imagine how they did that.

Miles Davis – My Funny Valentine

The Playlist

My playlist offers examples of both sorts of standards. Stellar takes on both the great American Songbook and on modern standards. In a couple of cases I offer two versions of the same standard.

My picture of Joshua Redman’s band playing the Jazz Standard in NYC is a sad image given that the club closed its doors for good as result of the pandemic.

As ever I hope you enjoy listening to the selected tracks.